Most people might think all those Roman ruins and medieval castles and paintings are the most notable historical artifacts in Italy. Personally, I think the thriving small-farmer culture that still dominates Italy is the most important gift from the past.
Sure, there is a whole lot of commercial agribusiness in Italy, but Italy’s core farming interest is still in the hands of small cultivators. Almost every town features a local vegetable market, where small cultivators sell their products directly to consumers. Small farmers in Italy can boast of an official registry of thousands of handmade and homegrown agricultural products not available through the big-business markets. And every day, Italian TV shows extol the values of small-farm products.
My wife and my garden is rather small, and we produce just for our own use. But we have been repeatedly offered the opportunity to sell extra production. The little market a few hundred yards from our home is always asking if we have something we want to sell. Last year, I was in the market when a customer asked the owner if she had any fresh parsley and marjoram. The owner didn’t, but I went up into our garden and harvested a nice bunch of parsley and a handful of marjoram to give to the customer. She offered to pay me, but I was happy just to be able to gift something from our garden. If I wanted to, I could easily sell figs, grapes, wild asparagus, fave beans, wild plums, mushrooms, fresh herbs, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and squash from our garden.
I personally know a dozen small farmers here in Rapallo who make their entire living cultivating their farms and gardens, several dozen people who sell something from their gardens, and two hundred people who sell some portion of their olive-oil production. I enjoy the fact that while olive oil in the supermarket is priced around 5 euros per liter, the price for homemade oil is about 10 euros per liter. People appreciate the quality of small lot oil production and are happy to pay twice the price when they can.
My favorite magazine these days (aside from Urban Farm and Hobby Farms, obviously) is Vita in Campagna or Life in the Country. All the small farmers in Italy read this magazine. It’s focused on articles of interest to people who are growing and producing food as a personal business— mostly hard-nosed discussions about topics related to financial success for small farmers.
I think Italy is the most fervently organic food producer in the world, not because they don’t have the money to buy expensive fertilizers and pesticides, but because sustainable culture makes more economic sense than the agribusiness methods.